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The Great Courses: Linguisitics

Language A to Z

    Language A to Z

With more than 6,000 languages spoken around the world, it’s no wonder that linguistics, the study of language, has a reputation for being complex and inaccessible. But here’s a secret: There’s a lot that’s quirky and intriguing about how human language works—and much of it is downright fun to learn about.

Every day, linguists ponder and try to solve some of the most intriguing scientific, historical, and sociological puzzles behind the inner workings of language—how it emerged, how it evolved, how it’s used, and where it’s going in the future.

  • What’s the deal with slang like “baby mama” and “LOL”— where does it come from and can it actually be OK to use?
  • Why don’t English speakers use words like “thou” and “thee” anymore?
  • What makes “mama” and “papa” the first words spoken by children in many languages?

These and other curious questions (and their surprising answers) are all part of what makes linguistics a field of study that’s anything but dry and dull. But with so many languages and so many potential avenues of exploration, it can often seem daunting to try to understand it. Where does one even start?

Look no further than Language A to Z, in which acclaimed linguist and celebrated Great Courses professor John McWhorter of Columbia University creates a delightful way to get accessible, bite-sized introductions to language. These twenty-four 15-minute lectures by one of the best-known popularizers of language use the English alphabet as a unique, offbeat way to let you hopscotch through some of the field’s major topics, hot-button issues, curious factoids, and more. Filled with humor, whimsy, and no shortage of insights, this course is a fast-paced tour of the same territory linguists tread each and every day.

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The Story of Human Language

The Story of Human Language

Language basics. In Lecture 1, you start by comparing human language to animal communication and ask, how valid are claims that animals such as chimpanzees have rudimentary language skills? Then you look at intriguing evidence that links a specific gene to the ability to use language. The first appearance of this gene in humans has been calculated and gives a surprisingly early date for the birth of language.

Chomsky’s revolution. In Lecture 2, Professor McWhorter notes that linguists are often mistakenly thought to be translators or experts on word histories. But their work takes them far deeper into language. For example, Noam Chomsky and his coworkers have been searching for the grammatical properties common to all languages—an effort that has revolutionized linguistics, though not without controversy.

Change is the norm. In Lectures 3–7, you learn the specific mechanisms responsible for language change, from phenomena such as the tone system in Chinese to the gradual shift in the meanings of words over time. You will find that even the parts of Shakespeare you believe you understand may not mean what you think.

Beginnings. In Lectures 8–13, you explore language families, starting with Indo-European, comprising languages from India to Ireland including English. Other language families discussed are Semitic, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, Bantu, and Native American. You also look at the heated debate over the first language.

Dialects. In Lectures 14–19, you cover dialects. Often one dialect is chosen as the standard, and when it is used in writing, it changes more slowly than the dialects that are just spoken. One consequence is that people who speak written languages are often taught that the constructions they produce spontaneously are errors.

Mixing it up. In Lectures 20–22, you study the phenomenon of language mixture. The first language’s 6,000 branches have not only diverged into dialects, but they have been constantly mixing with one another on all levels: vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and usage. As a result, English comprises a vocabulary of largely borrowed terms.

How English got that way. In Lectures 23–25, you learn how processes of change lead some languages to develop more grammatical machinery than they need, while others become streamlined, shedding such complexities. English is an interesting example of the latter tendency.

Prisoner of grammar? In Lecture 26, you examine the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which proposes that features of our grammars channel how we think.

New languages from old. In Lectures 27–32, Professor McWhorter focuses on pidgins and creoles. When people learn a language quickly without being explicitly taught, they develop a pidgin version of it. Then if they need to use this pidgin on an everyday basis it becomes a real language, a creole. Some people argue that Black English is a creole, and Professor McWhorter devotes a lecture to this issue.

Extinction. In Lectures 33 and 34, you come full circle. Having explored the processes that give birth to new languages, you now learn how languages become extinct and what can be done to preserve them.

Conclusion. In Lectures 35 and 36, you explore artificial languages, including Esperanto and sign languages for the deaf, and conclude by examining a single English sentence etymologically. In the process, you learn how word histories reflect the phenomena of language change and mixture worldwide.

McWhorter’s arguments are sharply reasoned, refreshingly honest, and thoroughly original.
‒‒Steven Pinker

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Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage

 Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage

Is English broken? Do bad grammar, slang, and illogical constructions signal a decline in standards of usage? Do e-mail and text messages corrupt the art of writing? In short, is our language going to the dogs?

It’s easy to think so, just as it’s easy to listen to people speaking a foreign language and think that they’re doing something more complicated and interesting than we’re doing in speaking English. But English is complicated and interesting too. Consider the real truth behind these widespread beliefs:

  • English is in crisis: False. English has been undergoing fundamental change for centuries. Novelty and caprice have created not just slang but the very foundations of what we think of as the best parts of English.
  • Latin is more perfect than modern languages: False. By historical accident, Latin became the standard for grammatical rigor. But countless languages, including English, are Latin’s equal in precision and expressive power.
  • Grammar should be logical: False. A double negative is unacceptable in standard English because it implies a positive. But many languages use it without misunderstanding, along with other constructions that defy strict logic.
  • Texting degrades writing: False. Text messages and e-mail are not crowding out other forms of language. Instead, they fill an important niche—informal writing—that until now had no adequate outlet.

The modern attitude toward English is filled with such misconceptions that obscure the true picture of what a marvelous language it is. Far from being a language in decline, English is the product of surprisingly varied linguistic forces, some of which have only recently come to light. And these forces continue to push English in new directions—in defiance of those who long for an age of formal perfection that never existed.

Taught by acclaimed linguist, author, and Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University, Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage dispels the cloud of confusion that clings to English, giving you a crystal-clear view of why we use it the way we do and where it fits into the diverse languages of the world. After completing these 24 lectures, you will think about how you use English in a new way, listen to others with discernment and fascination, and take joy in speaking such a wonderfully idiosyncratic tongue.

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The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition

The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition

Sixteen centuries ago a wave of settlers from northern Europe came to the British Isles speaking a mix of Germanic dialects thick with consonants and complex grammatical forms. Today we call that dialect Old English, the ancestor of the language nearly one in five people in the world speaks every day.

How did this ancient tongue evolve into the elegant idiom of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Twain, Melville, and other great writers? What features of modern English spelling and vocabulary link it to its Old English roots? How did English grammar become so streamlined? Why did its pronunciation undergo such drastic changes? How do we even know what English sounded like in the distant past? And how does English continue to develop to the present day?

The History of the English Language, 2nd Edition, is Professor Seth Lerer’s revised and updated investigation of the remarkable history of English, from the powerful prose of King Alfred in the Middle Ages to the modern-day sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout its history, English has been an unusually mutable language, readily accepting new terms and new ways of conveying meaning. Professor Lerer brings this second edition up-to-date by including discussions of the latest changes brought about through such phenomena as hip hop, e-mail, text messaging, and the world wide web.

Are you a logophile—someone who

  • Pauses over a word to wonder about its origin
  • Stops to consider if a phrase or word is “proper”
  • Savors a colorful idiom or slang phrase
  • Is concerned about the use—and abuse—of English
  • Is just plain curious about words?

Then you will find these 36 half-hour lectures endlessly fascinating and immensely rewarding.

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Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity

Can you imagine the world—or your life—without writing? From emails to street signs and newspapers to novels, the written word is so ever-present that we rarely stop to consider how it came to be.

Yet at just over 5,000 years old, writing is actually a relatively recent invention. It has become so central to the way we communicate and live, however, that it often seems as if writing has always existed.

Through writing, we gain knowledge about past cultures and languages we couldn’t possibly obtain any other way. Writing creates a continuous historical record—something an oral history could never achieve. And writing systems are integral to many cultural identities and serve as both a tool and a product of many important societal structures, from religion to politics.

The fundamental role and impact of writing in our civilization simply cannot be overstated. But the question remains: Who invented writing, and why?

Like any event from our prehistoric past, the story of writing’s origins is burdened by myths, mysteries, and misinformation. For the past two centuries, however, dedicated scholars have used rigorous methods to uncover a tale of intrigue, fascinating connections, and elegant solutions to the complex problem of turning language into text.

In the 24 visually intensive lectures of Writing and Civilization: From Ancient Worlds to Modernity, you’ll trace the remarkable saga of the invention and evolution of “visible speech,” from its earliest origins to its future in the digital age. Professor Marc Zender—Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University and an accomplished epigrapher—whisks you around the globe on a thrilling journey to explore how an array of sophisticated writing systems developed, then were adopted and adapted by surrounding cultures.

This course answers many of the most common questions about the world’s writing systems and the civilizations that created them, plus a number of questions you may never have thought to ask.

  • Do all writing systems descend from a single prototype, or was writing invented independently?
  • What one feature do the world’s writing systems have in common?
  • Which kinds of signs and symbols qualify as writing, and which do not?
  • How is the digital age changing the way we write?

Along the way, you’ll visit the great early civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Japan, and the Americas, and you’ll see how deciphering ancient scripts is a little like cracking secret codes—only far more difficult.

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